Politics

Scandal after scandal plunges UK to lowest-ever position in corruption index: 'The wrong direction'

Britain has placed 20th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), dropping nine places in just two years.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walks with Police Officers through Chelmsford high street to highlight government policy on Anti Social Behaviour looking toward 2 police officers in the foreground

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walks with Police Officers through Chelmsford high street to highlight government policy on Anti Social Behaviour. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

The UK has plummeted to its worst-ever ranking on a global perceived corruption index, leaving experts “more concerned than ever”.

Britain has placed 20th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), dropping nine places in just two years.

The dramatic fall – the worst in Western Europe – places Britain below 19 other countries, including the Seychelles, Uruguay and Estonia. It follows a string of scandals over pandemic-era procurement, the ennoblement of party donors and the revolving door between the public and private sectors.

The UK is “heading in the wrong direction,” said Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International UK.

“Despite repeated warnings, the UK’s score continues to fall. Britain has slid from just outside the top 10 countries to barely clinging onto the top 20 in just two years,” he warned.

“With the most significant drop in Western Europe we remain an unfortunate outlier, falling behind our peers – a powerful indictment of the recent decline in standards in government that have dominated the headlines in recent years.”

So how did things get so bad – and what should we do next?

Is Britain corrupt?

The ‘poll of polls’ measures how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be. To do so, it aggregates data from eight independent sources, including the Economist Intelligence Unit and the World Economic Forum.

The findings aren’t pretty.

On a scale where zero means a country is perceived as very corrupt and 100 means it is perceived as clean, the UK scored 71 for 2023. Top-scoring Denmark, by way of comparison, scored 90.

The UK’s score at the end of 2022 was 73, compared with 78 at the end of 2021 and 77 at the end of 2020. Our best score in more over the last decade and change was at the end of 2017, when we scored 82.

Our decline since 2018 is similar in size to that in countries like Myanmar (-9), Nicaragua (-8), Liberia (-7), and Turkey (-7).

The mark – the worst score the UK has ever recorded – follows years of highly-publicised scandals, as explained by Robert Barrington, professor of anti-corruption practice at Centre for the Study of Corruption. He was formerly the head of Transparency International (TI) in the UK.

“There have been more allegations and stories around corruption and government in the last five years than I think at any time since the Second World War in the UK,” he told The Big Issue. “It’s quite shocking and you can understand how it leads to a change in perception.”

Last year was no exception to this trend. In May 2023, court disclosures revealed that Javad Marandi, major political donor to the Conservative Party, was a person of importance in an industrial-scale money laundering scheme.

In November, Conservative life-peer Baroness Michelle Mone admitted that she was involved in a highly-lucrative PPE deal through the governments’ VIP lane system. The National Crime Agency are now investigating the contract.

These are just the latest in a litany of misconduct cases. Between 2017 and 2022, 40 potential breaches of the ministerial code were not investigated. And though not illegal, questions of competing interests dominate Westminster: Tory MPs have received more than £15.2m from their second jobs since the 2019 election.

The other issue, Barrington says, is “corrupt capital flows” – the illegal movement of money across borders. Britain offers dodgy investors financial secrecy on the mainland and in offshore satellites like Jersey and the Cayman Islands. In 2022, the National Crime Agency estimated that more than £100 billion was laundered London.

“That money is used for investment or buying property or sometimes to try and interfere with our political process,” professor Barrington says. “This is not a new problem, but investigative journalism has unearthed the extent of it, so there’s more public awareness.”

To tackle these twin problems, Transparency International UK has called on the government to ban political donations more than £10,000, and giving ethics watchdogs a statutory footing.

The result is clear in the data, Bruce warned – the public are increasingly concerned about cronyism and patronage in politics.  

“These findings should be a wake-up call for government,” he said. “We need urgent action from ministers – not just words – to restore much-needed confidence in the integrity of political and public life.”

The NGO has also urged the government to appoint an anti-corruption champion – a post that has remained vacant since June 2022.  

“The last anti-corruption champion resigned under the Boris Johnson. And it’s been unfilled since,” professor Barrington said. “That’s a good indication about how how little the government is prioritising this.”

The public are fed up. According to a recent survey of more than 6,000 Brits, 83% of people see economic crime as a serious issue in the UK. Less than half (46%) believe that the government takes it seriously.

How does the rest of the world compare?

It could be worse. Globally, the CPI average score remains unchanged at 43 for the 12th year in a row. More than two-thirds of countries are seen to have a serious corruption problem, scoring below 50.  

South Sudan (13), Syria (13) and Somalia (11), all of which are embroiled in lengthy conflicts, came at the bottom of the rankings.

But Britain should not take its comparatively high global ranking for granted, professor Barrington told The Big Issue.

“The attitude in the UK has been, well, corruption doesn’t really happen in this country, it happens elsewhere. But this result on the index is telling us it doesn’t just happen elsewhere,” he warned.

“The dangerous thing, is that when corruption takes hold, it’s very hard and very costly to reverse. It’s not too late to act now, but it will be too late soon.”

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